Reviewed by: Shaun Hughes
Developed By: Anti Gravity Game Studios
Published By: Pqube
Category: Action, Other
Release Date: 21.02.2019
Inevitable, unavoidable and game-defining
Delays are inevitable when creating media content. They happen in all walks of life and are sometimes unavoidable. In the gaming industry, a delay is often met with either applause or disgust, usually in equal measure. You only have to look as far as the recent Metroid Prime 4 debacle to see how well or ill-received an announcement can be. A recent article over at SwitchWatch by Lachlan Bruce (@ThirstyNintendo) provided an insight into delays from the perspective of a developer, and highlighted just how challenging it can be. With that in mind, when Hell Warders – originally scheduled for a January 17th release – was delayed by a month, my preconceived ideas of what this meant were shattered.
In my earlier, more naive days, I took a delay to mean one of two things. Either, game development has not been going well and the game will likely be a jumbled mess upon delivery, or, said game will be lost to the ether for so long it will soon be forgotten. Thankfully, my mindset has changed, and I approached Hell Warders with both positivity and the respect any game development company deserves. One thing that can be said for a development team willing to delay a title they have spent so much time and money on, is that they aren’t satisfied with providing a sub-par experience.
The sirens are screaming, and the fires are howling
Developed by Anti Gravity Game Studios and published by PQube, Hell Warders is a combination of action RPG and tower defense. The premise is simple: Hell’s gates have opened and all manner of creature is descending upon the land. As a creatively named Hell Warder, you must ward off the inhabitants of hell using your skills and that of your army.
The Hell Warders represent an ancient order of heroes who have ‘unique powers and abilities’, known as the Nexus powers, and they are to be used to avenge those that lost their lives in the original battle in the castle. ‘Let revenge be our prayer’ is the quote that appears at the end of the opening cut-scenes, which share this story fantastically well.
There’s evil in the air and there’s thunder in the sky
There are four acts across a variety of locations where you and your army will defend and defeat. Each battle is split into sections, one where you will have a period of time setting up your defenders for the impending onslaught, and the other where the attack is played out. There are typically four waves of enemy, each getting both larger in number and stronger in combat. The points you accrue in the previous wave can be spent to strengthen your attack for the next wave, with you deciding on the type of soldier to recruit to your army and where they will be placed.
The best analogy I can find to describe your role in all of this is a Player-Manager. You set your squad up and oversee the action, then wait to see how things pan out before you get involved. This strategy was difficult for me to adapt to initially, especially when the three class types you can select for yourself encourage combat. One brandishes an oversized sword that Cloud from FFVII would be proud of, another wields two large guns that both Bayonetta and Agent 47 would fight over, and the final class involves some relatively dark magic. Each of the classes provided are well-balanced and alter the combat drastically, making it an enjoyable experience trialing each one and making use of its powers.
Being a tower defense game, there is a strong emphasis on the defensive elements of the game – something some may struggle with. A large proportion of your time is spent developing a strategy, learning from the previous wave to improve your chances for the next, and upgrading your army to stand the best chance of survival. Once I transitioned into this style of play, I enjoyed the experience more. In the early stages of the game, there is some creative freedom as the levels aren’t as challenging. Come level three or four though, and Hell Warders certainly puts you through your paces. The option to go out all guns blazing was no longer there, that’s for sure.
And down in the tunnels where the deadly are rising
Due to the nature of the gameplay itself, the controls are vitally important, and Anti Gravity Game Studios have had to create two different schemes: one for the battle planning phase and one for combat.
During the timed battle planning stage, you are to use the directional buttons to move between the characters that you wish to deploy, and then place them using A. Once you have selected a combatant, it then appears as a movable object which goes wherever you go. The character has a field of vision which is indicated by two lines, and this needs to be considered when placing a character in a certain position. These can be placed anywhere on the map, including vantage points and low spots, but you need to be able to access that yourself with your playable character. I found this to occasionally cause me a problem as I had to effectively be behind the character myself before I could set them down and I believe implementing a more intuitive system here would have paid dividends.
As well as placing characters, you can remove them too. This is necessary during occasions where the previous wave has been defeated and you wish to make changes to your troop. Although you can have earnt a large number of points to spend on your army, you are limited to how many you place. Therefore, the first wave may have you spending xp on soldiers because they only cost 100, however wave 3 may see you swap these for magic-wielders or archers. To do this, you stand behind the one you wish to change and use the down directional button to remove them, which strangely enough plays out as if you have killed them. Again, it was occasionally a struggle for this option to appear as I had to be directly behind the subject.
The control scheme used during combat phases is much of what you would expect. The right trigger, ZR, allows you to attack; the left trigger, LR, enables use of your magic. You move using the left stick and look around with the right, and jump using B. The controls in both parts of the gameplay worked well enough and it took very little time before I was able to make full use of both.
The HUD is also deserving of a mention here, as it has been used effectively alongside all of the on-screen action, without becoming overwhelming. In the bottom left you can find the different pieces that can build up your resistance, as well as the weapons you have available and the buttons they are mapped to. Bottom right indicates how many units you can use at any one time and how much expenditure you have to ‘purchase’ them. There is a map which shows the points of entry of the enemies and the routes they will take, and the meters at the top of the screen share how many enemies there are left to defeat in the wave and your own HP.
I want to be damned with you…
Outside of the single-player offering, there is also an online multiplayer option which allows you to access all the same quests from the single-player experience. You can do this either by joining an existing server or creating your own, and you can ‘combine forces with up to four players and battle the legions of evil! Hell Warders supports co-operative play with friends and online matchmaking.’
Having struggled somewhat playing solo, I was keen for the servers to come online so that I could work alongside other players to progress through the acts. Although a little sparse on available games, myself and another member of The Switch Effect team were able to participate in matches alongside two other people. Immediately, my enjoyment with the title increased massively.
During online multiplayer, the person who set up the room in the first place becomes the host. Everyone can place units up to the maximum set in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Once complete, the host then presses ‘+’ to start the combat phase. It was here that Hell Warders is hindered by the online chat functionality of the Nintendo Switch Online Service as I found myself regularly reflecting on how much easier this would be to play on the PS4, with messaging and party chat being such commonplace.
For all its advantages as a multiplayer title, it is not without its faults. We found the game to struggle online when a large number of units were on-screen. For a game that often builds to hundreds of enemies per wave, this is a frequent problem. As well as this, the other players were lagging quite considerably and didn’t allow for the level of strategy that this game demands. I believe these problems to be rectifiable via a patch, and I sincerely hope they are, because the game is much more fun and accessible to the masses if the online services are fully functional.
Down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun
When Hell Warders was first announced on the Nintendo Switch, I remember being attracted by the early screenshots. Unfortunately, these haven’t translated as well to the final product and at times the visuals can leave you wanting. They aren’t sufficient enough to dampen the experience too much, especially as the locations themselves are well-designed and intriguing to look at, but I think better visuals would have improved its chances of a successful launch.
What is a little disappointing is the movement of your character: it often feels robotic and limiting in movement. I also found that the turning circle was sometimes hindered and I couldn’t move as quickly or as freely as I wanted to. It was this that made me realise that the game is much more about tower defense than it is combat, and I had a much better time because of it.
When the night is over, like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone, gone, gone
My time with Hell Warders was an enjoyable affair without ever being a game I was desperate to get back to. It challenged my combat suppositions and when I let go of my preconceived ideas of what an action RPG looks like, the tower defense strategy took hold and I sat back to watch it all play out. I know this genre is one with a large following, and having spent time with Hell Warders, I can understand the reasons as to why. I do believe that with a bit more time in the cooker, Anti Gravity Games could have made something that bit more special, but there is enough here to keep you entertained for awhile.
3 out of 5 stars